A ‘good length’ in today’s cricket is a thing of uncertainty. Not to batsmen as it used to be, but to the bowlers. It can turn a bowler into a menace or a novice because batsmen practicing range-hitting find it easy to line-up length balls. There are few as good at it as those from the Caribbean. But, with a little bit of nip or some extra bounce from the surface, this batsmen-bowler dynamic can revert to the traditional.
All it requires is a little patch of grass in the right position, or sometimes even a foot-mark or a crack. Little else about fast bowling is as intricately dependent on the nature of the pitch as a ball on a good length. Not the yorker obviously, and not even the bouncer which requires more from the body than the turf. This zone was best exploited by the likes of Glenn McGrath, Vernon Philander, Ryan Harris in the past. You can add Mohammed Shami to that list from those going around today.
On Thursday, both Jason Holder and Kemar Roach showed early that there was something on this Old Trafford pitch in that area. Particularly running in from the Brian Statham end. Four of the five wickets the duo picked came from this end. Jasprit Bumrah would later pick up his first wicket (Brathwaite nicking behind), after changing over to the Statham end, and then one more next ball (Fabian Allen LBW by one nipping in). It was from this end that Shami launched India’s attack and he didn’t take long to find his spot.
It was in the quintessential Shami zone, where his real threat comes through. His upright seam is most useful when there’s help off that length, breaking the ball in or out. The skiddy pace gets exaggerated with the batsman unsure how to line the ball up. The line when just outside off threatens both edges, stumps, pads and more.
In his first over, Shami had Gayle edging one inside and then beat him on the outside. Then, he’d go on to have Sunil Ambris playing off the inside half of his bat, hit him on the thigh and generally make him look all at sea. It was also from this end that Shai Hope creamed a boundary off that Shami length. Typically such a shot would have received a bouncer riposte. The bowler can then claim to have the morale upper ground.
But at Old Trafford, Shami could afford to go one better. He proceeded to bowl fuller than the 6-8m lengths that he was targetting. It resulted too in what could be arguably (Holder did something similar with KL Rahul) the ball of the day – the seam upright, the ball pitching and breaking in sharply to go between bat and pad and onto the top of the stumps.
Shami’s other wicket in his first spell of 5-0-15-2 had come with him shifting the length other way around. The plan to Gayle, he revealed, was simple. “The one thing that I thought was that if I don’t allow him to open his arms, then it will be good because at some stage, he will go for it.”
Job done. This was not a hat-trick that would make the headlines, but it had given India exactly what they want from Shami, to strike in the powerplay, and allow the spinners some breathing space before they come into the game.
That magic he produces from the length to get the ball to move off the seam, does not come easy, even for Shami. “It is a long procedure, a lot of hard work is required and then the results will come,” said Shami after the game. “I always concentrate on keeping the seam upright, so that off the pitch it can cut. And you could see that today.”
“I always prefer to use the new ball in the nets also. I keep practicing and try to notice if the ball is going in or out. You saw since the morning, the ball was seaming and cutting and there was not proper bounce. One thing was to keep focussing on your line and length.”